FCC looks to slap down China Mobile’s attempt to join US telecom system

The FCC has proposed to deny an application from China Mobile, a state-owned telecom, to provide interconnect and mobile services here in the U.S., citing security concerns. It’s another setback to the country’s attempts to take part in key portions of American telecommunications.

China Mobile was essentially asking to put call and data interconnection infrastructure here in the U.S.; It would have come into play when U.S. providers needed to connect to Chinese ones. Right now the infrastructure is generally in China, an FCC spokesperson explained on a press call.

In a draft order that will be made public tomorrow and voted on in May, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai moves to deny the application, which has been pending since 2011. Such applications by foreign-owned entities to build and maintain critical infrastructure like this in the U.S. have to pass through the Executive, which only last year issued word that it advised against the deal.

In the last few months, the teams at the FCC have reviewed the record and came to the conclusion that, as Chairman Ajit Pai put it:

It is clear that China Mobile’s application to provide telecommunications services in our country raises substantial and serious national security and law enforcement risks. Therefore, I do not believe that approving it would be in the public interest.

National security issues are of course inevitable whenever a foreign-owned company wants to be involved with major infrastructure work in the U.S., and often this can be taken care of with a mitigation agreement. This would be something like an official understanding between the relevant parties that, for instance, law enforcement in the U.S. would have access to data handled by the, say, German-owned equipment, and German authorities would alert U.S. about stuff it finds, that sort of thing.

But that presupposes a level of basic trust that’s absent in the case of a company owned (indirectly but fully) by the Chinese government, the FCC representative explained. It’s a similar objection to that leveled at Huawei, which given its close ties to the Chinese government, the feds have indicated they won’t be contracting with the company for infrastructure work going forward.

The denial of China Mobile’s application on these grounds is apparently without precedent, Pai wrote in a separate note: “Notably, this is the first time the Executive Branch has ever recommended that the FCC deny an application due to national security concerns.”

It’s likely to further strain relations between our two countries, though the news likely comes as no surprise to China Mobile, which probably gave up hope some time around the third or fourth year its application was stuck in a bureaucratic black hole.

The draft order will be published tomorrow, and will contain the evidence and reasoning behind the proposal. It will be voted on at the FCC open meeting on May 9.

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